Learning From the Ojibway

Odawa-feather-arrayHaving been reared in the West Michigan region once inhabited by indigenous Ottawa (Odawa) tribes, and having a brother and sister-in-law involved for years in Christian ministry with the Ojibway (Ojibwa, Ojibwe) First Nation’s people in northern Ontario, I have long been fascinated by the culture and beliefs of these Anishinabeg people groups.  A few years ago, however, I let that fascination lead me to a more in-depth study of some of their traditions.  A key resource was  Basil Johnston’s  book Ojibway Heritage.

Reading about the implications of the Ojibwe pipe ceremony, I discovered many aspects of truth parallel with Christian belief—plus attitudes and understandings about the creation that I believe should have been adopted long ago by the church in North America.

The Bible indicates that much of the truth that people can know about God and His world has been revealed to each generation in its own time.  This is commented on by “the Preacher” in the book of Ecclesiastes: “God has made everything beautiful for its own time.  He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT).

No one civilization has the handle on all truth, thus we can learn truth through the collective wisdom of the ages as it is tested against the biblical revelation.  Consider the following aspects of the Ojibway pipe ceremony (drawing on the research of  Basil Johnston):

The smoking ceremony represented man’s relationship to his Creator, to the world, to the plants, to the animals, and to his fellow man.  It was both a petition and a thanksgiving.  Even the pipe itself represented the elements of the earth: the pipe bowl of stone, the tobacco of plant material, the feathers of animal material, the air as it passed through the pipe and excited as smoke.

1) The first ceremonial whiff was upward toward the sun. This acknowledged both “Gitche Manitou,” the Creator, who is the ultimate source of life, and the sun, which is the physical source of life on earth.  Johnston elaborates: “In offering the whiff to the sun, the Anishnabeg were, by implication, affirming the mystery and incorporeality of Gitche Manitou.  At the same time and in the same way, they were acknowledging that the Great Unknown could be known through His creations.”

As Paul told the Romans, “From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God has made.  They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.  So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Romans 1:20 NLT).

2) The second ceremonial whiff was downward toward the earth. It acknowledged the four substances of which the cosmos is made and from which all living things come (in their simple form): earth, air, fire, and water.  Further, it acknowledged the nurturing aspect of the earth—“mother” earth in the same sense as expressed by Francis of Assisi in “All Creatures of our God and King.” [lyrics and music]  Male and female in union bring into being new human life; sun and earth in union bring forth all terrestrial life.

3) The third ceremonial whiff was toward the east. The east represented the daily cycle of life—that with the rising of the sun in the east each morning life was refreshed and a new day offered.  Flowers opened, birds began to sing, and people were rejuvenated for their daily tasks.  It also represented birth and infancy.  All these, of course, are gifts of God’s common grace, and to acknowledge them as such is biblically appropriate.

4) The fourth ceremonial whiff was toward the west.
The west represented the end of the day—and hence the end of life.  It was an acknowledgment that each person has a calling in life (a vision) that is to be finished before death.  To die without accomplishing something good kept one’s soul from peace in the land beyond this life.  This is also a fitting understanding for followers of the Word of God who desire to serve the Creator and know that they will be judged in part according to their works when they stand before Him

5) The fifth ceremonial whiff was toward the north. The north represented winter.  Symbolically it acknowledged that into every life comes hardship and suffering.  Johnston gives us a deeper meaning: “For leaders, it served as a reminder that decisions made in their councils were to be based on the principle ‘that the well-being of people took precedence over form, custom, and even tradition.’ Leaders were to avoid making conditions and matters worse for families and the community; and during the smoking, leaders petitioned Gitche Manitou for wisdom.  With wisdom and prudence, decisions made would render life just a little more bearable.”  None of this is contrary to biblical understandings about Christian leadership.

6) The final ceremonial whiff was to the south.
In the spring the sun returned from the south to warm the land and bring the rebirth of life in the Northern Hemisphere.  It represented the end of hardship and the promise of growth.  It was especially a time to give thanks to the Creator for His help in seeing them through the winter.  It also represented life after death for the soul.  It was the final part of the ceremony ending on the positive note of promised eternal life for the soul.  This is a fitting remembrance for the one who lives by the biblical worldview as well.

Integral to the pipe ceremony was the understanding of each person’s “call” in life: the vision.  During childhood and youth one prepared for life through the right experiences and the right education.  After that was accomplished, one was ready to receive his or her particular vision.  Prior to the vision, life was mere existence, preparation, and receiving.  After the vision came meaningful living marked by fidelity to the vision and the giving of oneself for the community.  In a sense, it was a recognition of one’s gift and the requirement that the gift be used for the good of all. [Consider the Christian parallel of  "the call" thoroughly examined by Os Guinness in The Call]

It is clear from this interpretation that the pipe ceremony was a ritual that recognized much of the same truth acknowledged in orthodox Christian understandings of life and in the biblical theology of nature.  If the Christian community conducted similar annual ceremonies today, there would likely be less detachment from the land and a greater understanding of our natural ties to Ojibway-couplethe earth—plus our spiritual ties and our responsibilities to our Creator to worship Him and serve our neighbor through sacrificial acts of love and by proper care of the creation from which we gain our sustenance.

What was missing in the Ojibwe ceremony was recognition of the incapacity of people to deal with original sin—with evil, both in the spiritual realm and in the heart of mankind.  It reflected a primitive form of salvation by works.  How it must grieve God that most of the colonists who knew the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ were so bent on obtaining personal wealth that they failed to share the Good News:  we’re not saved by our works but by the atoning death of our Creator and Savior, Jesus.  Hence they actually suppressed the truth found in both Christianity and Native North American spirituality.

I feel that it’s important for Christians to consider the elemental truth inherent in many indigenous cultures and then in a winsome way add to it the redemptive and regenerating truth found in the written Word of God, the Bible.

See you outdoors!

Dean